As we all should know by now, there has been a terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami in the north of Japan this weekend. Everyone is abuzz about it right now (as they should be) so, as I am here, I will give you my “where were you when…?” story.
This Friday was graduation day for the third-year students in the junior high school I teach in. After a rewarding, though tearful, ceremony, my kids left the school grounds for the last time, all full of smiles and future hopes. After the last pictures were snapped and the final waves waved – we teachers went back to an emptied school and had a special graduation lunch.
We all gave speeches commemorating good work and dedication (I think so anyway…my Japanese is not that good yet…) and went back to the staff room to relax and begin preparations for the next term.
It was not long after we settled in that one of my fellow teachers turned on the television and yelped, calling us over. Then we watched it all unfold, slowly, horribly before our eyes. As the waters washed over the Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, and the fires burned in Tokyo, all need for translation deteriorated. We were all yelling the same thing at the people in cars, in houses, running on the streets and empty rice paddies away from the fires that engulfed buildings or from the wall of water rushing to swallow them, : “Run! Get out of there!”
While the footage of the tsunami rushing inland (a wave with so much force and speed that it left a cloud of spray lifted behind it – a testament to it’s almost angry power) was rare and in a scientifically speaking way, significant, that fact alone could not turn our attention away from the humanity of the situation.
And while the Japanese are quite used to earthquakes and tsunamis, as they rest on one of the most active regions of the Ring of Fire and see natural disasters as not only something to prepare for, but as a part of life, none of their preparation could have shielded them against this. They have widened rivers and raised roads and bridges – they have earthquake proof buildings and evacuations plans – but when an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale hits you – who would have a chance?
So we watched in horror as the helicopters circled clusters of building about to be hit by the water in Sendai, and though they exercised some delicacy – changing the picture to one of that of an office building during the quake or a press conference just as someone was about to be swallowed inescapably before our eyes – they were not always quick enough.
As the wave of sea water black with sludge and debris, carrying boats, cars, and houses on fire pushed ever further inland, all we could do was watch as cars attempting to drive away on the highway were pushed over by the wave, as people stuck in a traffic jam leaped out of their cars in desperation and ran, as a motorcyclist did his best to race death – and lost. What struck me the hardest was hearing of the school gymnasium that collapsed in Tokyo during a graduation ceremony…
I went home to call my family and tell them I was alright. As I got in, Boyfriend yelled from the other room that the quake had hit and he had felt it, shaking our apartment for several minutes and how could I not have felt it? The best I could do was say that my school is a brand-new quake-proof building. Granted, I live a little north of the city of Kobe (another Japanese city with a history of deadly earthquakes) and far from the epicenter of the quake. But I wondered that myself – how did I not feel it? Part of me almost felt guilty – as if it was somehow shameful that I didn’t physically share in this dreadful tragedy. Perhaps I am starting to empathize with the collectivist culture of Japan.
I had noticed when I got in that my friend’s car was in my driveway, but she hadn’t come in. I called her and she told me that she couldn’t park in her spot because there were police covering the parking lot of her apartment. She sounded panicked. The two of us went down the street to check on her.
While from New Zealand, my friend is proficient in Japanese and has a lot of friends all over the country – many of them living up north. She was panicked because phone lines were down and she hadn’t/couldn’t hear from her friends to see if they were alright. What made it worse: an old woman who lived upstairs had apparently died – either from the shock of the earthquake or the tragedy or perhaps even days before – we don’t know how or when, and her family stood outside waiting and weeping.
So we three strangers from faraway lands huddled together under the scent of formaldehyde (covering something rotten) that leaked down from the ceiling. We could not escape the fact of death that day.
My heart goes out to the people of Japan. 2011 has so far been a year of dreadful disaster and tragedy, from the floods of Australia and Brazil to the earthquakes of New Zealand and Japan, and even to the atrocious acts against basic human rights happening in Libya…
My heart goes out to us all. Let’s hope that 2011 has something better to bring us soon.